Welfare: Work All Around

President Clinton recently responded to a citizen concerned about the direction welfare reform has taken: "It is now up to all of us to work together to ensure that welfare is a second chance, not a way of life."

For the president, that work presumably involves a push for legislation to improve the reform measure he signed into law in August. Specifically: a new federal job-placement program to help welfare recipients make the transition to work, tax credits for businesses that hire these people, and more tax-favored urban "empowerment zones" to help generate employment.

Mr. Clinton also has promised to alter some facets of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 - notably, its denial of benefits to legal immigrants and provisions restricting access to food stamps.

This reform of the reform could itself cost billions of dollars. It won't be easy, but Clinton is right to move it forward. The federal government can't shoulder the whole responsibility for assuring that welfare recipients will have job opportunities. But an interim federal package of training money and tax incentives would help make welfare-to-work a reality. Congress, particularly members ardent for welfare reform, should join with the president in crafting such a package.

Relief for legal immigrants may be harder to get through Congress since it could entail restoring much of the $54 billion the federal government stands to save on its welfare tab in the next half-dozen years. The most cogent argument for excluding immigrants from benefits concerns the obligations of those who sponsored them.

Officially, no immigrants are allowed in unless they have family or other sponsors who will take care of them. But circumstances change, and those sources of support can disappear. The law should be flexible enough to allow food stamps and other aid in unusual circumstances.

A number of states with large immigrant populations - like Texas, California, and New York - are lobbying to restore food stamps and other benefits to immigrants. Others, with pockets of high unemployment, are applying for waivers to override the law's limitations on food-stamp benefits.

But those should be rear-guard actions. The states' major work lies in figuring out how to abide by the law's requirement that half of each state's adult welfare recipients be moved from the benefit rolls into jobs within six years. A few states - like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts - have welfare-to-work programs well under way. Some 43 states have gotten waivers from Washington to try other experiments in welfare reform. Those experiments won't be canceled by the new law, but will be allowed to run their course.

Current welfare tinkering by states includes Maine's decision to reinstitute visits by case workers to recipients' homes to see firsthand just how big an effort is needed to change habits and to get people started on the path toward productive work. South Carolina is withholding cash assistance until new recipients can show they've applied for at least 10 jobs. Kentucky has a program to transport people from depressed Appalachian regions to cities where jobs are more readily available. Utah draws up a self-sufficiency plan with each person, specifying steps such as job training and acquiring job-seeking skills.

These steps are taken, no doubt, with varying degrees of compassion and goodwill. Some states have always done the minimum with regard to public assistance, and they might try to continue in that vein under the new law. But a common thread runs through all current efforts - the goal is no longer to put a net under people, but to propel them toward independence.

As an ideal, that's hard to argue with. As a practical matter, it's complex, and the obstacles are many. A majority of welfare recipients have always moved relatively quickly off the rolls. The proportion that fit the stereotype of longtime recipients who live off the system is small. But when you get past those who are fairly well prepared - either by attitude or experience - to enter the job market, the placement task gets increasingly difficult. Training and education become paramount, and even more expensive.

All along, thoughtful observers have noted that work-oriented welfare reform, if it is to succeed, can't be looked at as a cost-cutting program. The creation of public-service jobs, to absorb those who can't find private-sector employment, carries a significant price tag. Training, education, and child care have to be major parts of the picture. To allow children to go uncared for, and to slip further into poverty, would undermine the whole thrust of reform, creating more cases of adult dependency down the road.

The best way to look at welfare reform is as an investment made by the whole country - public sector, private sector, and individuals - to develop more of its human potential. Everyone has to work together to ensure the outcome is increased hope, not hopelessness.

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